Labour is the Hiroo Onoda of Scottish politics

World War II didn’t actually end in 1945, you might be surprised to learn.

Japan’s aggression against the Allied Forces in fact ceased on March 11, 1974.

Or at least it did for Hiroo Onoda, a second lieutenant in the Imperial Army, who finally surrendered on that day.

Onoda spent 29 years cut off from his commanders in a jungle outpost, convinced the war was still waging and that approaches from police to explain the situation were another American ambush.

The authorities air-dropped orders to surrender but he assumed they were fake. They dropped letters from his family but he figured this was a trap. He would not listen to reason; all outside communication was rebuffed.

Eight years since the SNP came to power, Scottish Labour is still holed up in its jungle redoubt, though that fortress increasingly resembles a treehouse in size and sturdiness.

The Scottish people sent signals — the 2011 Holyrood vote, the 45% Yes vote in the referendum, and the Westminster wipeout — but Labour has managed to convince itself that each was a Nationalist subterfuge.

As First Minister’s Questions confirmed, Labour is the Hiroo Onoda of Scottish politics; it will not surrender to reality. The thought of 29 years of this is enough to make sensible Labour people seek out their own jungle sanctuary.

Iain Gray led the charge for the party on Thursday. It is not the first time he has served as interim Labour leader, a position he held from 2008 to 2011. His elevation, such as it is, came after Kezia Dugdale stood down as deputy leader to contest the leadership and he will speak for Scottish Labour until the parliamentary recess. Mr Gray was chosen for the role using a little-reported formula implemented under the recent party reforms: ABJB, “Anyone But Jackie Baillie”.

(Full disclosure: I lobbied for the job to go to Ian Smart. It would have added to the gaiety of the nation to have a Labour leader who turned up to FMQs in a replica SS uniform, goose-stepping around the chamber and singing the theme from Dad’s Army.)

The stars were in alignment for Mr Gray, given the Scottish Government’s continuing failure to meet its own A&E waiting times targets and the woes besetting the new Death Star hospital in Glasgow. But if the temporary Labour boss had the facts on his side, he also had himself on his side and no matter how hard he aimed, almost every round went straight through his own foot.

He was smug, taunting, hectoring, every question beginning with a sneer and ending with an exclamation mark. It was as if he was providing a catch-up service for anyone who missed Labour’s decade of sullen mediocrity. “I know that jet lag can mess up a person’s body clock something terrible,” he sniped in one barrage. Mr Gray hasn’t been so commanding without the aid of a Subway BLT in years.

All in all, it was Kezia Dugdale’s finest performance thus far at First Minister’s Questions.

The problem isn’t laying into the SNP. I have no truck with the phoney calls for consensus that say Labour should stop being so critical of the Nationalists. “The opposition like to come to this chamber with problems,” Ms Sturgeon rebuked Willie Rennie at one point, still puzzled that some folk think First Minister’s Questions is a chance to ask questions of the First Minister. That’s the point of an opposition party, to oppose the government of the day. If Labour becomes an echo, saying “me too” on everything except independence, it would be as well merging with the SNP and becoming its Edinburgh South branch office.

But there are ways to score points off bumbling ministers. Consider how Alex Salmond’s SNP took on Jack McConnell from 2004 to 2007. They picked their battles carefully, attacking Labour on its natural territory. Scottish Labour doesn’t seem angry with the government so much as downright surly with the electorate. We’re really sorry we’ve let you down, Labour. What can we do to make it up to you?

There are problems in Scotland’s NHS, as the First Minister acknowledges, but recognition will only get her so far. She could appoint Annie Wilkes the chief medical officer and the Heaven’s Gate wing of the SNP would still weep at the mere mention of her name. But the Scottish Government’s — and specifically Nicola Sturgeon’s — competent management of the health service was a key selling point for the party in the 2011 election. Voters trust the SNP on the NHS and until now the Nationalists have for the most part vindicated that trust.

Waiting times are a running sore and with no referendum to distract the public, the record on service delivery is only going to come under more scrutiny. Diehards will be with them until the end but if they lose the confidence of Middle Scotland on bread-and-butter issues, the SNP could see themselves in real trouble for the first time in years.

Mercifully, the FM didn’t fall back on her favourite response to difficult questions: “Stop talking down nurses/teachers/Scotland/our alternative economic reality.” At one point, SNP backbencher Roderick Campbell noted that diabetes levels were “at an all-time high” in Scotland. I half-expected Ms Sturgeon to chide him for talking down hypoglycemia and offer him a Mars Bar.

The SNP leader also made do with a single deployment of her well-worn “we won the election, na-na-na-na-na” line. For linguistic dexterity, though, no one could rival her insistence that the CalMac ferry service wasn’t being privatised but merely run by the private sector.

While I apologise to her for all these martial metaphors, which she isn’t keen on, the First Minister emerged victorious from today’s combat with barely a scrape.

Scottish Labour is still secreted away, hunkered deep within the thickets of denial. Come out of the jungle, Labour. The war is over. You lost. Time to draw some new battle lines.

Originally published on STV News

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